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An article published by New Yorker concerning the ongoing attempts by the Polish government to silence Holocaust research in Poland was met by widespread criticism after its author, a well-known columnist Masha Gessen, referred to the Polish government’s actions as an effort to “ exonerate the nation of the murders of three million Jews”.
The director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau state museum Piotr Cywiński issued a statement in which he stated that the article contained “so many lies and distortions that I find it a bit hard to believe that it is a coincidence” before adding that “when it concerns the Holocaust, any distortion of historical truth is very dangerous. This applies to all forms of denial, revisionism and deformation of historical truth.”
He was joined in his criticism by David Harris, the CEO of American Jewish Committee, who called the controversial sentence, used prominently as a subheading, “defamatory”, and expressed his astonishment that the magazine “chose to publish an incendiary, one-sided assault on Poland—implying it, not Germany, was primarily responsible for murder of 3 million Jews”.
Konstanty Gebbert, a columnist for Gazeta Wyborcza, wrote an opinion piece commenting on New Yorker’s article.
“I am all too aware of the controversy that has erupted in Poland in response to this article. By "all too aware" I mean, among other things, a barrage of hate mail, including death threats, that has been directed at me in the last couple of days. Most of the reactions seem to focus on a single phrase concerning the Polish government's "effort to exonerate Poland - both ethnic Poles and the Polish state - of the deaths of three million Jews in Poland during the Nazi occupation." Contrary to the laws of both linguistics and logic, this sentence has been interpreted as an assertion that Poles, or Poland, is responsible for the deaths of all three million Jews killed on its land during the Holocaust. I said no such thing. Here is what I did say: Three million Jews perished on the territory of occupied Poland during the Holocaust; some ethnic Poles, and some structures of the pre-war Polish state, are implicated in some of the deaths; in its efforts to clear Poles and Poland of any blame in any part of the Holocaust, the government has gone so far as to quash intellectual inquiry.
I understand that the subtleties of word usage can evade even people who know a foreign language well. But the misinterpretation involves a harder-to-forgive logical fallacy as well. Saying "the government is going overboard to prove A false" does not equal the statement "A is true." Understanding this does not require a mastery of English. That so many people and institutions, including the Auschwitz Museum, have chosen to ignore the rules of logic in reacting to my piece is, frankly, shocking . I understand that this gives me barely a taste of the intellectual climate in which Polish historians of the Holocaust now live.
As a final note, I would like to state that I am no stranger to this topic, as a person and as a writer. Before the war, my family lived in Bialystok and Warsaw. Of a sprawling family - my great-grandparents had 25 siblings between them - only four people survived: my grandmother and great-grandmother, who ended up in the Soviet Union, and my great aunt and her young daughter, who were saved by ethnic Poles. To be more specific, they were saved by strangers after their Polish friends, fearing repercussions, turned them away. I grew up with this complicated history, and one of my first books, written twenty years ago, delved deeply into it. I am all too aware that complicated, contradictory stories cannot be told in a climate of outrage and denunciation, when a writer knows that any word or phrase of theirs is likely to be taken out of context, twisted, and used against them. What I have seen in the last couple of days, since the publication of my short piece thousands of miles away from Poland, is the very opposite of a climate in which intellectual inquiry and nuanced story telling are possible.”
On Monday, the spokesperson for New Yorker informed the media that the subheading was amended “to more accurately reflect the contents of the article, which we stand by.” It now says: “Scholars face defamation suits, and potential criminal charges, in the Polish government’s effort to exonerate the nation of any role in the murders of three million Jews during the Nazi occupation”.
Both Cywiński and Harris welcomed the change, while maintaining that the article remains problematic due to a host of other issues. The director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau state museum also maintained that the correction should be accompanied by an apology for the “painful damage” caused by Gessen’s piece.
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